Whilst everyone loves to see a record breaking performance that scoops Gold, or a plucky effort to secure a Bronze medal, it seems like a peculiarly English pastime to save the biggest cheers for the valiant loser who crosses the line long after the other athletes have departed the field.
When Hamadou Djibo Issaka from Niger crossed the line nearly two minutes after the rest of the field had finished, he received a standing ovation and sustained applause. There’s something about being totally removed from the competition that allows us to judge performance by a different set of standards. When there is an expectation that you can win, just failing is judged harshly, whilst when there is no possibility of success whatsoever (Issaka only learnt to row three months ago) we tend to respect the all out effort. Hence the cheers as he slumped in his seat, totally spent from the effort.
Our fondness for sporting incompetence (remember Eddie ‘the eagle’ Edwards?) is at odds with our approach to academic failure, which is rarely celebrated, although sometimes held up as a badge of pride by individuals with little else to celebrate. Our approach to failure is interesting: i am periodically faced with organisations that only want learners to ‘pass’ or ‘try again’, but never to ‘fail’. On only one occasion did i have to recoil at being asked to give people feedback that they had ‘passed’ or ‘chosen not to pass’ on this occasion.
Whilst there is a point to sensitivity, to avoid competition altogether, to remove the risk of actual failure seems one step too far for me. It’s like the non competitive sports days that many schools now run. I just don’t see the advantages. I can confidently say that i never won a single race or event at school sports days and, indeed, i’m fairly sure i was the glorious loser in many (though without standing ovations). I just learned to love the active lifestyle outside of school, with kayaking, cycling and walking all coming into their own once i left. I passed my English exams and failed my Economics one spectacularly. I learnt from both experiences.
Scott failed, in the truest sense, and paid the ultimate price for failure, whilst Shackleton failed and yet won a different competition, bringing his whole party back from the polar attempt alive. Both are celebrated as heroes.
I guess that the fear of failure is a big motivator in our drive for success, or rather, it can be one of a number of factors. I suspect that our motivations to succeed are complex, relating to self image and reward as well as fear of failure or rejection. Nonetheless, i am reasonably confident that failure as much as success drive our ongoing development, so both organisationally and academically, we should take a mature approach to how we approach both states.
We often look to assess people on whether they have ‘passed’ or ‘failed’ a particular piece of learning, but maybe we should look at how we use that pass or fail to drive future performance. What lessons do we actually take forward from failure, or are we accidentally celebrating it?
In sports, there is something gracious and generous about celebrating or at least supporting failure: it doesn’t detract from the success of the winners, it just demonstrates humanity and a recognition that sometimes it really is the taking part that counts. Maybe there are times when that attitude could be applied more widely?
In other instances, the winning is everything and we should moderate our approach to failure accordingly. Maybe the mistake is to end up in a place where failure has no consequences, but is actually significant. That would be the worst of all worlds. Perhaps, in the context of learning design, we need to understand the consequences of failure, the context of the assessment and the correct approach to take in each situation, allowing us to adopt an appropriate stance to those who fail.